Networking, science communications, public engagement and advocacy for convergence science
REBUILDING THE KIDNEY FROM STEM CELLS
Professor Melissa Little
2 June 2016
The promise of a kidney in a dish
By Julie Egan
“There is really a desperate need for us to find alternatives for the treatment of kidney disease”, said Professor Melissa Little from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne, an internationally recognised expert in the field of kidney development, disease and regeneration.
One in ten Australians have some sort of kidney malfunction and one in a thousand babies are born with a kidney abnormality, yet options for treatment such as dialysis and transplantation have barely changed in half a century. Dialysis costs about $A50,000 per year and has a 16% mortality, restoring only 10–15% of normal kidney function. Only one in four patients receive a kidney transplant, with one a week dying while waiting for a transplant. Those who do receive transplants face a lifetime of immunosuppressive therapy.
Understanding how the normal kidney develops offers insights into possible alternative therapies, said Melissa. “We wanted to see if we could build a kidney based on all the information we had on how a kidney forms”.
The developing kidney contains two key types of cells: the collecting ducts (which form the plumbing) and the nephrons, the basic functional units of the kidney, which filter the blood, reabsorb what is needed and excrete the rest. Microscopic examination of early kidneys show an accumulation of mesenchyme cells (embryonic connective tissue) around the tips of the branched collecting ducts. These mesenchyme cells form the nephrons. Both cell types secrete growth factors, the mesenchyme cells promoting the branching, and the signals from the tips of the branches promoting development of mesenchyme into nephrons.
Making a mini-kidney
The question is, said Melissa, can we recreate this type of structure? If we want to recreate an organ, we really need these very early populations of cells that instruct each other.
Any adult human cell can be reprogrammed to take it back to the state of the very early embryo. These pluripotent stem cells can then be induced to make any cell type. In the embryo, cells turn into particular cell types by reacting to signals from cells in particular positions around them. We need to understand how this happens, said Melissa, so that we can encourage it to happen in a dish. Very complex patterned tissues can be formed by using different combinations of growth factors at different times to mimic the environment that cells would be exposed to during development. This prompts cells to go through the stages they would have followed in the embryo.
Many different cell types are formed and these cells communicate with each other as they would have in development. The end-result is a mini-organ or organoid; success has been reported with growing tissue for the optic cup of the eye, pituitary gland, intestine, thymus and liver.
A crucial factor in such organoid formation is self-organisation. Cells move around during development in response to signals from their neighbours. It has been shown that even if you break down a kidney into its separate cells and then recombine them, after 24 hours kidney-like structures will begin to appear.
What people said about the event.
Excellent presentation of a complex subject.
Melissa explained her elegant work very simply and clearly
Highly recommended for would be doctors and biomedical researchers. This presentation was a wonderful expose of the collaborative nature of present day researchers. It was inspiring!!
Interesting talk from world-class scientist in important area of research.
It was nice touch to have student representatives chair the event.
It is a huge privilege to attend your meetings and hear from top research scientists.
Keep it up, its a terrific educational experience
Trust in A Time Skepticism - Sonya Pemberton
9 May 2016
‘Today we expect science to solve all our planet’s problems and yet we blame it for so many woes. The increase in science denialism and scepticism is profound’, said Sonya Pemberton, award-winning film maker and Director of GenePool Productions. Drawing on her extensive experience, including over 60 hours of TV documentaries covering a wide range of subjects, Sonya outlined and illustrated with film clips the insights she has gained on science communication.
‘How can science be communicated across the divide to people to think differently to us, specifically to those who don’t trust or like or believe in science?’ she asked. ‘Often science is communicated primarily to other people who enjoy, appreciate, trust and seek out science. How can we better communicate to those who don’t agree with us?’
‘The reality is that information does not speak for itself’, said Sonya, referring to Jabbed – Love, Fear and Vaccines’, a film made for TV about how we decide whether to vaccinate our children. More information is not the key to better communication; more facts made no difference to people who were vaccine hesitant or sceptical.
Each of us carries around a collection of beliefs, identities and experiences that shape how we hear science messages, she said. To speak to those from the ‘other side’, it is important to look for common ground, and in Jabbed, that was a desire to protect the people we loved. What was equally powerful was to acknowledge different views. She therefore included in the film an interview with a homeopath, a decision that shocked many scientists. When he said vaccination was important, those interested in alternative medicine listened.
The challenge was to avoid activating an ‘us and them’ mentality, instead triggering conversations that are inclusive. The film was designed to appeal to those who were sceptical, hesitant or against vaccination. Her aim was to strive for an opening that would convince both supporters of vaccination and those who were sceptical that there was something to hear and to keep people watching. ‘It is important to acknowledge people’s fears’, she said. What is important is how you answer the questions those fears raise.
With TV documentaries, where facts and storytelling have to meet, you have an opportunity to reach millions of people, she said. Such programs can inform and at their best can shape thinking. Jabbed changed attitudes to vaccination.
How can scientific information best be provided? Avoid scientific terminology where possible, said Sonya, referring to the sceptics’ dislike of the term ‘herd immunity’ which they saw as jargon from the pro-vaccine camp.
Effective science communication means using the storyteller’s tools of fear, mystery and controversy, which she illustrated in a clip from Catching cancer. However, she related how she had rejected funding from a potential partner who wanted to make the film more frightening. ‘We overuse fear and it is backfiring on us, one of the reasons for increasing mistrust’. The ‘heart’ and the ‘head’ stories have to balance; the film was not only about the process of doing science but also a story of how we feel, how we live and how we die.
Another storyteller’s tool is metaphor, which can be used to cut through a mass of complex information to deliver accurate and useful information. In the film Immortal, describing the work of Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, the caps on the ends of shoelaces were used to illustrate the function of telomeres, the caps that protect the ends of chromosomes.
‘I want to make science stories as accessible, as engaging and as useful as possible’, said Sonya. Her most recent film Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail, made to commemorate the anniversary of the 70th bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, covered the natural history of uranium. The key objective was to appeal to a younger audience who had not grown up with the fear of nuclear power.
‘My driving motivation is to try to be useful – we don’t need more hype, more spin, more confusion, we need clarity and care, we need sources and stories and science that we can trust. Science communication impacts how we see our world and how we imagine and see ourselves.
Sonya is planning future films on risk and vitamin supplements. She is interested in ‘areas that are slightly confused, where people get angry and there is a lot of divisiveness, where there are arguments and collision’. One of the key principles of effective communication is acknowledging uncertainty. ‘When you acknowledge uncertainty, people trust you more’, said Sonya. Uncertainty can open the door to having a frank and realistic conversation.
‘I believe science stories are the great epics of our time, huge stories of life and death, of origins and future, of what we build and destroy, of what we can fix and what we must reimagine’.
The Next Pandemic – A Hypothetical
7 March 2016
Julie Egan - Melbourne
The recent widespread outbreak of Zika virus infection ensured a full house for this panel discussion that brought together experts in public health, infectious disease, bioethics and media to discuss responses to past and future pandemics.
A pandemic is a new infection that goes around the world whereas an epidemic is generally more localised, explained Professor Peter Doherty, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996 with Swiss colleague Rolf Zinkernagel, and has been involved in research on infection and immunity for 50 years. Pandemics need not necessarily result in ‘terrible infections’; although swine flu was very infectious, severe disease was mainly restricted to poorer communities in the 2009 pandemic.
Pandemics can be ongoing, for example, AIDS, which was first reported in 1981. Many pandemics don’t hit the headlines, such as norovirus, the most common cause of food-borne acute gastroenteritis, which infects millions of people every year.
Where do pandemics come from?
‘Environmental changes are really significant in terms of drivers of new and emerging diseases’, said Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute and an infectious diseases physician with particular interests in the cure of HIV infection. She cited changes in how we live and farm, climate change, deforestation, changing animal habitats, and urbanisation. Climate change will have an effect on mosquito-borne infections by changing mosquito habitats. Ebola, which is though to have spread from killing non-human primates for food, can be seen as a function of poverty, said Doherty.
Discussion moderator, Dr Norman Swan, broadcaster and journalist, quoted medical historian Roy Porter: ‘Whenever we change the way we live, new diseases emerge’.
‘Those who suffer most are those who are most vulnerable’, said Michael Moore, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia and President elect of the World Federation of Public Health Associations. The Ebola pandemic, which began in Guinea in December 2013, spread in West Africa because of the vulnerability of the people due to poverty.
Dr Stewart Condon, President of Médecins Sans Frontières Australia, reported from the frontline. What happened in West Africa, he said, involved extremely vulnerable populations who had been exposed to civil war with no health systems to support primary and secondary health care. ‘As a result, you saw one of the biggest outbreaks handled badly, with hundreds of people dying’. Local governments and authorities made mistakes in priority setting that fuelled the epidemic.
Much of the failure to manage Ebola was cultural, suggested Swan. Safe ways to dispose of bodies were antithetical to community beliefs about burial practices. Cultural barriers to discussing safe sex practices had also initially hindered education in the early days of the AIDS pandemic.
Panellists agreed that the international community had failed. According to Condon, international health regulations framework for how the World Health Organisation (WHO) and member states could work together in such a situation did not support a good response or even good surveillance of what was happening.
The Australian response was heavily influenced by the fact that it was West Africa which was affected. ‘If that had happened in Papua New Guinea or Indonesia the Australian government would have had a totally different response’, said Lewin. There was also a feeling that medical teams needed to be kept closer to home in case an epidemic broke out nearby.
Ebola was never a serious threat in Australia, said Doherty, where we have modern medical services and good communication. ‘If it had got into Papua New Guinea that could have been a problem for us’.
HIV was a major pandemic that did make it to Australia. A key factor in the response was leadership and coordination across the whole country that engaged scientists, government and community, said Lewin. Probably one of the most important steps in the early days was access to clean needles which was revolutionary in Australia and not done anywhere else. There is now a consistent number of new infections a year and access to new treatment and pre-exposure prophylaxis is available.
‘We live in a global world and diseases travel globally’, said Professor Jeremy Sugarman from the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in the US. An internationally recognised leader in biomedical ethics, he stressed the importance of remembering our ethical obligations. Those with expertise in science and medicine and building infrastructure have a moral obligation to provide assistance, he said, citing ‘common decency and the notion of charity’.
The scientific response to Ebola was impressive according to Lewin. The responsible virus was soon identified. Technology has now advanced such that a new pathogen could probably be identified in a couple of weeks, said Doherty. The 1918 influenza epidemic killed maybe 50 million people but the virus was not isolated for another 13 years. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) first emerged in 2002 and was identified in a couple of months. It’s essential to understand what you are dealing with and how the virus behaves, he said.
It was already known, said Sugarman, from the few people treated in the US for Ebola, that very intensive first-rate medical treatment could get people through the illness but that level of care was not available in Africa. Although there were already candidate antiviral drugs, a crucial ethical question was how to roll out experimental treatments in the setting of an outbreak. Normally, the effectiveness of a drug is tested by comparing it to placebo, but ‘when everyone is dying, you don’t need a placebo group’, said Doherty.
By 2008, Ebola vaccines were already at an advanced stage of development. Vaccines had been tested for safety but not for their ability to produce a good antibody response. There was not sufficient economic motive to continue, said Doherty.
Responding to a pandemic involves more than looking at the biology, it means looking at where resources are going to come from and how they are to be spent, said Moore.
Preparing for future pandemics
Once the crisis is over, help often stops. Strengthening health systems in poor countries is absolutely key, said Lewin. This involves long-term program decisions on investment in foreign aid. Another area where Australia can make a huge contribution is in the science.
Moore explained that the Communal Disease Networks Australia, an arrangement between states and territories, does have emergency plans but argued for better coordination to avoid the ongoing financial struggle between states and territories. What was needed was something similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.
We don’t invest in preparedness for pandemics in the same way we invest in military defence. ‘We’re programmed to think about bad guys, we’re not programmed to think about bad bugs’, said Doherty.
Getting the message over
Neil Mitchell, host of 3AW Mornings and veteran journalist, pointed out the difficulty of engaging the public. How could he sell the message that devoting resources to, for example, TB was important? There needs to be an ‘element of constructive fear’, he said. Swan suggested a possible story: multiple drug-resistant TB in PNG, ‘just a tinny ride across the Torres Strait’.
Panellists agreed that transparency was essential. ‘If people understand that scientists, doctors, medical professionals don’t know everything but they’re working on it 24/7, that’s better than “it’ll be fine” ‘, said Condon. Secrecy and ideas of conspiracy held back understanding of AIDS. Conspiracy theories are already emerging about Zika virus.
We need to engage communities that can deliver health messages, particularly when governments aren’t trusted, said Lewin. The gay community played a crucial role in education about HIV.
Local voices need to be heard. Local community leaders were involved in Senegal and Thailand, said Doherty. In the Ebola outbreaks, survivors were included in health teams. ‘It was powerful for communities to know that you don’t die 100% of the time’, said Condon.
What will be the next pandemic?
‘We do know for certain that at some stage we’ll get another influenza pandemic’, said Doherty. Diseases which we don’t regard as pandemic now and which don’t get media attention, such as tuberculosis, could become significant. Lewin pointed out that we just don’t know. There are many rare viruses. Who could have could have imagined HIV? Who could have predicted Zika and the link with microcephaly? The big threat is antimicrobial resistance, she said, bacteria that are resistant to multiple drugs. ‘We are seeing more and more cases of drugs that are resistant to all known antibiotics’. There has been no profit motive for drug companies to develop new antibiotics, said Doherty.
However, the doomsday scenario of a global pandemic that wipes out the human race is not going to happen, said Doherty. ‘The greatest risk that worries us is a substantially dysfunctional world due to climate change’.
Preparing for the next pandemic
Panellists agreed that better global structures were needed. Concerns were raised about WHO’s resources and budgeting for emergency responses. Moore pointed out WHO’s lack of flexibility and problems with contributions from member states. WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance Network has, however, been very successful; it was the first to pick up on SARS, said Doherty.
Lewin pointed to the success of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
After our experience with Ebola, we are now dealing with the Zika epidemic differently, she said. The WHO has even been accused of overreacting. Condon was more pessimistic. Disease outbreaks which are potential pandemics such as the Katanga meningitis outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, won’t be dealt with until they hit the Western world, he said.
This event was produced in partnership with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the Club Melbourne Ambassador Program.
What people said about the event.
The event got together a diverse group of people from Melbourne with an interest in infectious diseases
Gives us the opportunity to find like-minded individuals who are grappling with some of the pressing issues in science.
Such networking event allow us to share information, experience, challenges as well as providing new opportunity to enlarge our knowledge, develop business relationship etc.
It is a good chance to maintain existing relationships and also to develop new ones. Technology and science develops at a fast pace, - this event helps you keep informed of advances particularly outside of your immediate interests.
One of the outstanding events - really first rate panel and discussion.
The knowledgeable participants blended in well under the skilful direction of Norman Swan.
It is such a privilege to hear from so many experts with diverse perspectives and skills. A mature and interesting conversation.
Keep up the good work. The value of long term science must be understood by an enlightened electorate.
Professor Peter Doherty is an amazing man, articulate, intelligent and warm to the audience. The entire panel was intelligent and insightful. A wonderful event.
Facing Hope with 3D printing
Thursday, 18 February 2016
Dr Andre Tan - Melbourne
“Restrictions are difficult to enforce in a world where anybody can make anything.” – Hod Lipson
A full house was not unexpected at the Doherty Institute for the “Facing hope with 3D printing” event hosted by the Convergence Science Network. With recent international news coverage of ground breaking developments in maxillofacial reconstruction facilitated by 3D printing technology, the audience were keen to hear the behind-the-scene story of collaboration between Melbourne researchers (Professor Peter Lee and Dr David Ackland, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Melbourne) and a surgeon (Dr George Dimitroulis, St Vincent’s Hospital) for the design and manufacture of a replacement temporal mandibular joint (TMJ).
Professor Lee began the presentation on the core concept that early advances in construction with steel were only possible once its mechanical properties under various loading conditions were well-understood. A parallel was then drawn to the use of 3D printing techniques for manufacturing human implants, where similar challenges existed. These challenges were contrasted against the benefits of 3D printing, such as the ability to print complex shapes, and using different materials.
Although techniques for printing metal structures (such as Selective Laser Sintering - SLS) could allow geometrically-complex prostheses to be printed to suit the unique anatomy of an individual patient, Professor Lee aluded to the need for better tools to simulate the mechanics of these prostheses.
Dr Ackland presented the current problems with existing prostheses for the replacement of the TMJ – 1) that there was only one supplier of a generic prosthesis, 2) there are only 3 sizes, and 3) the procedure to implant a prosthesis risks damaging key nerves in the vicinity of the implant site. Using the core competencies in modelling and simulation, and human & cadaveric testing, Dr Ackland and his team were able to develop a detailed 3D model in silico to visualise the anatomy of the skull at the anticipated implant site, and optimise the patient-specific implant design prior to its manufacture. A key resource they leveraged was data from the Visible Human Male Project in order to model the soft tissue (such as bone and cartilage) and the influence of muscle and joint loading on the functional performance of the prosthesis. Mechanical loading data were crucial to understand if the simulated implant would perform optimally under physiological loading conditions, such as chewing and biting. It was pleasing to hear Dr Ackland note the key role of undergraduate students in the early design of the prosthesis.
Dr Dimitroulis brought home the human story to the technical endeavour. He founded OMX Solutions, a medical device company, to facilitate the manufacture of 3D-printed prostheses. A 20yr old female, Alexandra, had dissolving jaw joints. 3D models of Alexandra’s skull and jaws obtained from computed tomography (CT) scans were critical in pre-surgical planning and manufacture of a pair of custom TMJs. Before-and-after images clearly showed the restored lower jaw projection to normal. A second patient, Michelle (female, 69), had been unable to speak and eat properly, as her lower jaw had gradually dissolved over many years. Using similar digital design and 3D printing methods, both her lower jaw and teeth were replaced with a custom-designed set of 3D printed prostheses.
The final case Dr Dimitroulis presented was heartbreaking. A female patient (31yrs) with lip cancer had multiple tumours burnt off, and had most of her right lower jaw removed. Currently, her only option is for a fibula (leg) graft to restore the jaw structure – a rather crude solution. It is here the story pauses, as regulatory certification from the Australian Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) is required for unique, custom-manufactured prostheses she needs.
The issue of regulatory requirements for 3D printing featured heavily in the panel Q&A session that followed. A key point that was raised was that regulatory bodies (local and global) had not yet developed wholistic frameworks for dealing with the “digital” aspect of the medical device manufacturing process (i.e., the use of models and simulation tools in the design of custom prostheses).
The wide range of topics covered during the presentation highlighted the key technical, medical and regulatory challenges, across the spectrum of the “digital research bench” to the patient. At the post-presentation networking event, Victorian Parliamentary Secretary for Medical Research, Mr Frank McGuire, stressed the importance of turning these achievements into commercial success – a tough ask in itself, given the challenges of protecting one’s intellectual property in the broader 3D printing area.
As 3D printing capabilities continue to evolve rapidly, the achievements demonstrated by the presenters and their respective teams have paved the way for many others to follow their lead. It is my hope that this success story continues to inspire others to collaborate across disciplines to improve the quality of life for those that need it most.
What people said about the event.
Keep doing what you're doing. Incredibly interesting and inspiring
Thank you for including the public! I invited my 17 year old grand nephew along and he loved the presentation which seemed to confirm his interest in the discipline - a good omen, and hopefully part of what you area aiming for!
The event was filmed. Where can I get access to the video please?
I would love to share this with friends to introduce them to CSN.
CSN provides unique opportunities for face to face interactions with scientists who we might otherwise only see in the papers. I look forward to attending future events.
I think you do an excellent job in promoting how science can work together.
Having travelled from Shepparton, it was wonderful to be greeted by sandwiches, fruit and a cool drink. Great venue, wonderfully accessible by public transport.
Absolutely fantastic event; it had the right mixture of technical knowledge and plain English to be entertaining and informative.
Convergence science is a most valuable and necessary function. Informing the interested public and gaining political recognition is perhaps secondary to developing the cross talk and flow of ideas from diverse people.
I thought it was an excellent event, well organised with fantastic content. I look forward to future events.
These events provide a unique opportunity for a group like ours to meet people we would've otherwise never come in contact with. I think having these events after the talks is such a great leveller, it doesn't make me feel like I don't belong or that I'm not 'mature' enough to engage in discussion with people who would otherwise probably intimidate me.
Stimulating topics lead to great discussions, in about 1 out of 2 to 3 events I will meet someone where this leads to a follow-up after the event .
Great to meet new people. Attendees are open to conversations and active networkers.
Open peoples minds about what is happening at this minute in our great city. Brings on a sense of pride. Increases support for further development of such innovative convergent opportunities.
The Development of the Monash University Bionic Vision Device
Thursday, 29 October 2015
Melbourne truly is a hub of medical miracles, and on Thursday 29 October we gathered to hear about another medical breakthrough that promises to restore a sense of sight to the blind – The Monash University Bionic Vision Device. This device has been given the name ‘Gennaris’, after the line of Gennari - a band of myelinated axons that are the inputs to the primary visual cortex from the lateral geniculate nucleus.
Professor Laurence Meagher, Director of Research at Monash Institute of Medical Engineering (MIME), gave us a warm welcome and introduced the scientific capacity of MIME - where clinically focussed research, such as the Gennaris, is supported by expertise across a range of engineering disciplines. From there, Laurence introduced our first speaker, Professor Arthur Lowery, Director of Monash Vision Group.
Arthur warmed the crowd with his own brand of humour and then launched into an overview of the Gennaris hardware - developed by the Monash Vision Group (MVG), a consortium of engineers, physiologists and neuroscientists at Monash University, doctors at The Alfred Hospital and Victorian companies MiniFAB and Grey Innovation.
As we learned, the external components of the Gennaris are a video camera mounted on spectacles and a pocket processor to transcode the video image. The headgear includes a coil at the back of the head to communicate wirelessly to tiles of microelectrodes implanted on the visual cortex. MVG hopes to bring benefit to people with a wide variety of vision impairments, owing to the fact that the implantable tiles bypass most of the visual pathway. Unlike a retinal implant, a functioning optic nerve is not necessarily required, and so the device can even be implanted in patients who have lost their eyes to disease or trauma.
There are many engineering feats that go into achieving an implantable device and Arthur was very pleased to report that the device is ‘ready’. Importantly, he emphasised that the prototype is intended to be as ‘commercially-ready’ as possible, with designer headwear and a user-friendly pocket processor. Although prosthetic vision is not as detailed as healthy vision, Gennaris includes some fancy signal processing which can highlight objects on a table or encode human faces as cartoon-like ‘emoticons’. Finally, Arthur spoke of the future possibilities with this hardware platform, including a way to pass signals from the brain to external devices (as in brain machine interfaces).
Professor Jeffrey V. Rosenfeld, Principal Investigator on the Monash Vision Group bionic eye project, spoke next. Among many other accolades in science and neurosurgery, Jeffrey is the Founding Director of MIME and Director of the Department of Neurosurgery, Alfred Hospital.
Jeffrey took us through a brief history of cortical implants for restoration of vision. We were introduced to the work of Giles Brindley, who investigated electrical stimulation of the visual cortex in 1968 with an array of stimulating electrodes implanted on the surface of the visual cortex in a blind volunteer. Although Giles performed some excellent research work, and is a useful sounding board for Jeffrey and his team, regrettably the technology was cumbersome and only viable in a lab setting.
The history of cortical implants also includes the work of Dr William Dobelle, with another attempt at surface electrodes in a somewhat infamous clinical trial between 2002 and 2004. His artificial visual prosthesis consisted of surface electrode arrays that provided encouraging results but, regrettably, also carried a high risk of seizures and had electrode connections exiting the skull.
All is well, Jeffrey assured us. We now have a deeper understanding of the arrangement of the visual cortex and have the technology to specific target the particular regions associated with visual processing. Jeffrey gave further details on the implantable wireless ceramic ‘tiles’. These have an arrangement of platinum iridium microelectrodes to penetrate the surface of the brain and deliver signals to the layer 4 of the primary visual cortex where processing of spatial information is known to occur. Importantly, the use of penetrating microelectrodes greatly reduces any risk of seizure associated with surface electrodes arrays. Speaking from his vast neurosurgery experience, Jeffrey assured us that the surgery was feasible and effective, although the accepted technique for penetrating the dura mater would involve a high-powered pneumatic gun! Safety testing has involved volunteer sheep, who appear from the photos Jeffrey showed us to have been readily accepted back into the flock following surgery. The histological results after implantation showed minimal gliosis surrounding the electrodes and so Jeffrey concluded that the cortical approach is safe and viable.
Our final speaker in this evening of ground-breaking science was Associate Professor John Forsythe, a specialist in biomaterials for tissue engineering and electrode design. John alluded to technologies in the pipeline to create a biologically friendly interface between electrodes and tissue. John’s work at MIME includes studies of hydrogels, electrode coatings, conductive polymers, and even coatings with living cells in them. These technologies could bridge the gap between electrodes and neurons, with the living cells sprouting from the electrode to form synapses to neurons. The promise is real – John presented electrophysiological recordings that demonstrated functional electrical connections forming in vitro.
The audience was welcomed to ask the lay questions around what the technology was expected to deliver and how accessible it would be. The audience was curious as to whether a cortical implant could provide enhanced vision to a healthy individual, such as providing a 360 degree field-of-view. As much as we sometimes wish we had eyes in the back of our head, Jeffrey reminded us of the ethical conundrum around body enhancement and the non-trivial risks associated with neurosurgery.
Arthur allayed any concerns that the levels of radio waves through the coils would submit the brain to dangerous microwaves, and clarified that the wireless technology was on the 5 MHz band and would not be susceptible to interference when walking down the street. Moreover, we were assured that the ‘overly paranoid’ engineers on the project had taken pains to ensure the system was hacker proof and not a means to directly control the user’s thoughts or emotions!
In all, the Monash Vision Group are very enthusiastic about their achievements to date and invited the Convergence Science Network community to celebrate these successes as they move forward into a clinical trial.
Dr Matt Petoe and Dr Mohit Shidvasani
The Bionics Institute
What people said about the event.
The concept of sharing high level scientific research with a broad audience is excellent.
These events help to fill a key need for a forum to present research that crosses boundaries
It is an enormous privilege to listen to people of this calibre talk about their work. We are fortunate to have CSN and even more fortunate that the experts give their time and thought so generously. Thank you, thank you, from an elderly person who works with dancers on neuromotor control and an adolescent who loves science.
Great speakers. Clever people dedicated to a great project. The door prize was a nice idea.
Thank you for such an insightful event into this inspiring achievement.
It's hard to know who is interested in what you do - these events provide the opportunity for people with a variety of skill sets and backgrounds to meet and interact. I think that level of diversity is the most valuable aspect of these networking events.
The event was attended by people that I probably would not have met if it were not for this event being organised. I will be following up with this people in the future.
As a secondary school teacher, the events provide opportunities for professional development in terms of knowing the content we teach, and understanding real-world applications and knowledge.
Portable diagnostic devices – the new world of disease diagnostics
Thursday, 27 August 2015
It was a cold, dark and wet evening in Melbourne on Thursday 27 August but there was a buzz in the air and a fantastic turnout at the Portable Diagnostic Devices panel discussion. In the networking session before the discussion I remember speaking to scientists, engineers, bioinformatics researchers, product development specialists and patent attorneys! It was a great reflection of the diverse skills and professions that work together to develop diagnostics devices.
The event kicked off with a warm welcome from Dr Debra Yin Foo, Partner at Phillips Ormonde Fitzpatrick a sponsor of the Network. Each panel member then provided an inspiring snapshot of their research followed by an insightful panel discussion.
Dr Simon Corrie from The ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology (CBNS) discussed his research into the development of novel technology nano-patches that have thousands if micro-projections or micro-needles which could remove the need to draw blood! The micro-projections penetrate the outer layer if skin and are designed to detect multiple biomarkers, which are markers that indicate a normal or disease state, within the blood found in the capillary loops near the surface of your skin.
Dr Corrie highlighted the importance of understanding the market not just the science. He noted that a key market driver in diagnostics is the movement of laboratory based testing to point of care (POC) testing. For example, today the majority of diagnostic testing using blood requires processing of the blood to prepare it for testing. The microprojection patch would take away the need for this complex processing, which provides advantages for a POC diagnostic.
Next up Professor Nicolas Voelcker, Deputy Director of the Mawson Institute, University of South Australia and chief investigator at CBNS provided a fascinating insight into his development of wound dressings that can provide an indication of how a wound is healing. In chronic wounds there is an aggressive inflammatory environment and skins cells cannot grow under the scab or fibrous tissue and removal of dressings can cause further damage. The brilliance is that this aggressive environment can be detected through a number of changes within the wound: pH, temperature and biomarkers.
Prof. Voelcker focused on his research into polymers that can be used within the fabric of normal dressings but that change colour at different pH or release drugs in response to temperature.
A normal healing wound has an acidic pH around 4-7 but a chronic wound has a higher pH, greater than 7. Prof. Voelcker’s pH changing polymer in a wound dressing can be graded to show areas of a wound that is not healing and this without the need to rip-off that bandage.
Inflammation and infection result in a temperature increase in chronic wounds. Prof. Voelcker and his team are investigating polymers that release therapeutics in response to temperature to provide an event specific response, which is preferred over continuous prophylactic (preventive) drug release as it avoids producing drug resistant bacteria.
Finally, Dr Alastair Hodges, Chief Scientist at Universal Biosensors detailed the complex nature of product development, requiring a range of skills and professions in a convergent approach to the development. This allowed Universal Biosenors to develop a novel electrode strip that provides their diagnostic platform used in the OneTouch® Verio® Glucose Test launched by Lifescan.
Conventional electrochemical strips had a coplannar arrangement electrode system. Dr Hodges, found that by sandwiching electrodes not only could you simplified manufacture but it resulted in an increase in reproducibility. Dr Hodges found that by sandwiching the electrodes they could use smaller samples and more information could be accessed through electrochemical analysis, as the opposing electrodes could now talk to each other, resulting in a breakthrough immunoassay platform
Dr Simon Tucker, Former VP Research of Biota Pharmaceuticals, lead the panel discussion and helpfully clarified technical language such as the meaning of “multiplexed assay” which reefers to a type of HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assay" assay that simultaneously measures multiple markers. The audience wished to know if Prof. Voelcker’s wound dressings would be available in the pharmacists so that we can detect healing issues before they become chronic? However, Prof. Voelcker explained that part of the difficulty is the cost involved with developing this technology and as there are the cheap dressings currently available on the market it is unlikely to be used for a simple scratch to the knee.
In response to a question, Dr Corrie discussed the chemistry and the ongoing investigations into longterm affects of microneedle patches on the skin.
There was an interest in DNA testing and if any of these diagnostics could be used in precision medicine. Dr Hodges took the time to explain the difficulties involved in DNA testing. As the concentration of DNA within a sample is so small, many orders of magnitude lower than what we traditionally measure, we need special techniques called PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to amplify the signal. The technology presented by the three panelist is unlikely to be able to detect the minute amounts of DNA but the future is promising as there is research into new methods of DNA amplification, which may be used in portable diagnostics.
Dr Gemma Ferguson
Business Analyst, Planet Innovation
Adviser, Convergence Science Network
What people said about the event.
Excellent event, great turn out even though it was a rainy day! I made useful connections, so it was a great opportunity to grow my network. Also brilliant to be able to introduce people to others across the different areas within my network.
I appreciate the efforts of the Network to bring together diverse groups to facilitate networking and educate about each others activities. Melbourne is a great hub for research and ideas but can only continue if people are working together rather than in silos.
This was the first CSN event that I have attended, I got a lot out of both the talk and the networking opportunity. I was also surprised at how well attended the event was supported and I am looking forward to being able to attend these events in future.
Very worthwhile forum...excellent speakers,,,well organised.
Presentations were excellent, varied and informative. The atmosphere at the cocktail reception was very relaxed and friendly, it was easy to meet new people and share experiences and knowledge. Very enjoyable!
The presentations were excellent and at the correct level to engage a diverse audience. The networking receptions provide a more intimate environment to further connect with the presenters and key people within the convergence community.
The presentations were excellent and at the correct level to engage a diverse audience. The networking receptions provide a more intimate environment to further connect with the presenters and key people within the convergence community.
The receptions are great. People are friendly and open to making new connections and collaborations.
Two Reflections on The Role of Big Data in Precision Medicine: An Example of the Art of the Possible by Dr Cecil Lynch
Tuesday 13 October
PhD student, Bioinformatics, The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. President of COMBINE.
On Tuesday 13 October, Melbourne researchers and clinicians gathered to hear Dr. Cecil Lynch talk about the promise of big data in medicine. Dr. Lynch described his transitions from computer scientist to doctor, to father and now to medical data analytics. Now Chief Medical Information Officer at Accenture, Dr. Lynch is in the midst of a stellar career.
Dr. Lynch started his talk by getting a measure of the audience:. “Raise your hand if you are a clinician. A researcher? How about computer scientists or bioinformatician? If you raised your hand multiple times, you know what I’m talking about”. In a career full of transitions, from bench research, clinical practice and computing, Dr. Lynch is the embodiment of what we need to be as modern scientists and clinicians. We need to straddle the boundaries between disciplines if we are to thrive in the era of Big Data.
Dr. Lynch talked about big data and precision medicine from the perspective that each of his fields has given him. Speaking as a clinician, he described the challenge of explaining complex genomic information with patients, of presenting the data to them in a way that reflects their needs and preconceptions, as well as the implications for their family.
Next, Dr. Lynch described his forays into big clinical data and data analytics. He described mining data from an impressive health insurance dataset containing diagnoses, hospitalization and drug prescriptions for more than a million patients. He has leveraged this data to study the complex interactions between Alzheimer's Disease, statin use and myocardial infarctions (MI, heart attacks). While his research has questioned the use of prophylactic statin use, he emphasises the danger of drawing conclusions from observational data. For example, while he found a link between statin usage and myocardial infarction, he emphasised that anyone in the audience should talk to their doctor before taking action based on his talk, as the data is likely skewed by the fact that statin users were already at high risk of MI (which is probably why they were prescribed it in the first place). Experimental science is needed to pull apart the differences between correlation and causation. More studies are needed to follow up his findings.
Although this type of big health data analytics opens the door to many questions for the cause and treatment for seemingly unrelated diseases, there is still much work to be done. Dr. Lynch described research into the impact of genomic information on prediction of heart disease. It turns out the standard questions used to extract a patient's medical history, combined with well-established clinical tests, are excellent at predicting MI. The addition of genomic data doesn’t add much, if any, predictive power - yet. But Dr. Lynch isn’t worried.
"We've had 75 years to understand the phenotype, and not long at all to understand the genotype".
Clearly we are merely at the beginning of a great tradition of big data and precision medicine into research and clinical practice. I am certainly excited to see where the next 75 years of medical research can take us.
Dr Harris Eyre MBBS
On Tuesday evening, 13th of October, we had the pleasure of hearing from Dr Cecil O Lynch, Chief Medical Information Officer of Accenture USA. His presentation was titled ‘The Role of Big Data in Precision Medicine: An Example of the Art of the Possible’. Dr Lynch was in Australia for a brief visit representing Accenture and discussing big data analytics in genomics. The day before, he presented to the Convergence Science Network Symposium on Precision Medicine.
It was interesting to hear of Dr Lynch’s atypical background. He originally completed his MD at UCLA, followed by training in gynaecology and gynaecological oncology. Following a successful clinical-academic career in gynaecological oncology, be then completed a Master of Science in Medical Informatics and Computer Engineering. He described his role at Accenture as bridging his love of clinical medicine, research and informatics together. Dr Lynch’s role at Accenture is multifaceted with work as a medical content expert, an engineer of their data analytics infrastructure, and as a project lead for the 60 million person longitudinal cohort dataset. The 60 million person dataset has followed patients for 7 to 12 years, and can be data mined for insights for pharmaceutical companies. One such example Dr Lynch describes was using this data set to understand the association between statin (lipid lowering) drugs and Alzheimer’s disease. The data suggested statins are associated with increased levels of Alzheimer’s disease, however this remains to be tested in clinical trials.
Through this presentation, Dr Lynch also outlined the definition of precision medicine and the ethical implications. Despite the hype and excitement over precision medicine, Dr Lynch provided a more sobering perspective, outlining insights from genomics have so far yielded very few pharmaceutical advances. He also outlined genomics are currently no more useful for predicting illness development (as compared to over clinical information) for lifestyle disorders such as type 2 diabetes mellitus, coronary heart disease or obesity. Dr Lynch suggested this is likely because the biomedical research community has had 75 years to hone the role of clinical phenotypes, whereas genotyping has only been considered in the past decade. With time, he suggests, genomics will become more useful to aid in diagnosis, treatment and prevention of illness at the individual level.
All-in-all, Dr Lynch provided a helpful overview of precision medicine, its current utility and future predicted roles.
About the Convergence Forum
The Convergence Science Network will announce a series of events in early 2015. Our program will include presentations from science thought leaders and practitioners, events where we explore topical issues in more depth and we¹ll be presenting some of our brightest scientists who will share their exciting work in convergence science.
Convergence Science Symposium
The Convergence Science Network is an initiative that promotes an understanding of convergence science to the community, why it is important and how it is helping researchers and businesses realise their visions in delivering improved health and well-being.
Graeme Clark Oration
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The Graeme Clark Oration is delivered by global leaders in science in honour of Prof. Graeme Clark’s pioneering work in developing the bionic ear in Melbourne in the 1970’s. It is recognised as Australia’s most prestigious free public science event and is attended by secondary school students.
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